The Guinea Pig series (1985)

The “torture-porn” genre likely dates back to Herschell Gordon Lewis’s first forays into the genre in the 1960’s; however, the new wave, best known for the works of director Eli Roth, likely got its start with this series of Japanese films, made between 1985 and 1990, with a ‘Slaughter Special’ – a greatest-hits compilation – following in 1991. They hit notoriety when #2, The Flower of Flesh and Blood, was reported by Charlie Sheen to the FBI as a real snuff-film [it seems likely it reached him from Chas Balun, via Chris Gore]. Obviously, that isn’t the case, but the series as a whole, still merits a certain regard, and is often touted as among the most vicious and brutal of all horror-films. Certainly, viewing the movies back in the halcyon days of my horror fandom, on third-generation, untranslated copies in all their grainy goodness, likely enhanced the feeling that you were watching something truly dangerous and subversive. See our original review of Flower for our thoughts at the time.

That was then: we proved to be completely wrong when we said it was, “unlikely to be released anywhere outside its native land.” Now, the movies are all available in perfect quality on DVD, with subtitles and extra features including making-of documentaries, just in case the authorities end up popping round for a chat. However, we were prophetic – if off on the time-scale – when was said “maybe, in 30 years time, we’ll be seeing Flower of Flesh and Blood on TV.” For in 1996, it was indeed aired on a public-access channel in San Francisco, albeit more because no-one was there to notice than anything else. Still, its legend remains, to the extent that it reportedly remains illegal to make a film in Japan with Guinea Pig in the title, much as the BBFC insisted on a title-change for the silly Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers to Hollywood [Picture of a chainsaw] Hookers. While that’s unconfirmed, it is perhaps connected to films from the series being found in the collection of serial-killer Tsutomu Miyazaki. Yeah, and Fred West liked Disney movies. Let’s ban them too.

Looking at the series overall, it’s notable how the tone and approach changes radically after the second entry – this may well be connected to the change of distributor, to a more high-profile company. Certainly, there’s absolutely no way anyone could mistake any of the other entries in the series as anything other than low-budget horror movies, even if you don’t recognize the star of Tetsuo and its sequel in #5. One can hardly blame the creators for this – there is only so far you can go with that kind of pseudo-snuff approach to cinema, and this may have been as much responsible for the adjustment in style, as any problems coming down from the authorities. It’s also interesting that the carnage becomes much more equal-opportunity: #1+2 won’t be getting screened at any feminist media conferences in the near future, shall we say, and are arguably the most misogynistic films of all time. Here’s our take on the entire set.

#1. The Devil’s Experiment
Rating: C+

Dir: Satoru Ogura

This depicts an escalating series of tortures inflicted by three men on a woman. It starts with her being slapped, and ends with a literally eye-popping sequence, a needle being shoved into the side of her face and out through her eyeball. It is, perhaps, the reductio ad absurdum of horror: while the central tenet of the genre is that we watch unpleasant things happen to someone else, Experiment contains absolutely nothing else. On one level, it’s an interesting demonstration of how necessary aspects like character and storyline are to horror’s effectiveness – when they are removed, what’s left has curiously little impact.

Admittedly, it’s not helped by variable execution: you’ll see far better kicks and slaps at any semi-competent wrestling show, though one has to admire the (typically Japanese?) industry involved in spinning the victim round in a chair over two hundred times. On the other hand, kudos to the unnamed actress at the center of it all. She still has to put up with maggots crawling over her face and being pelted with raw meat; at times, her pitiable yelps of pain will make the viewer shift uncomfortably. The camerawork occasionally has moments of almost lyricism, and given how little there actually is here, the 42 minutes goes by surprisingly quickly. 

#2. Flower of Flesh and Blood
Rating: B

Dir: Hideshi Hino
Star: Hiroshi Tamura, Kirara Yûgao

It’s been a good fifteen years since I last watched this, and I wondered how it would stand up to the passage of time. The answer is, surprisingly well. The low-rent production qualities still work for the movie as much as against it, and the effects are surprisingly good, given the budget was only about $20,000. It’s very basic, with two characters: a woman, and the man who kidnaps and dismembers her, in order to enjoy the ‘blossoming’ of her blood and organs. Again, I refer you to our original piece, as much of what was said there remains applicable now: the interesting thing is that the killer believes he is creating art, and anaesthetizes his “collaborator” so she feels no pain. You could argue a case that the viewer is more complicit in any “sadism” to be found here.

This is entirely aimed at what Stephen King termed, with mixed emotions, “the gross-out,” and on that level, is an unabashed success with its close-up, near-endless depiction of dismemberment and other atrocities, and very little else. Of note on the DVD is the inclusion of the original Hideshi Hino manga on which the story is based, telling the story of a gardener whose floral interests move from the vegetational to the more human, which puts much the same carnage into a more ‘normal’ literary context. One final note. To get the translations for our original review, we ended up recording the audio on cassette-tape and passing that to the Japanese wife of a friend, because there was no way we were going to show her the actual movie. I still wonder what she thought of it, with all the squishy sound-effects…

#3. He Never Dies
Rating: C-

Dir: Masayuki Kusumi
Star: Shinsuke Araki, “Eve” (Yumiko Kumashiro), Masahiro Satô

While decent enough when it gets going, this definitely takes too long to reach that point. Araki plays Yoshio, a downtrodden salaryman, with an extensive anime/porn collection – one suspects they’re depicting something not too far from the typical Guinea Pig fan in Japan, an outsider, though the overall treatment is generally sympathetic. For reasons that are completely unexplained, he discovers himself to be both impervious to pain and immortal: whatever damage he takes, has no effect on his functioning. He slits his wrist, cuts his own throat and stabs himself in the temple with a protractor – nothing doing. Like all immortals, he decides the first thing to do with his new-found power is…to scare the bejeezus out of a couple of his workmates. Hilarity ensues, as they say.

Except, it doesn’t. There’s some amusement to be had from the fact that his female colleague (porn star Eve) is less concerned about Yoshio’s bizarre state than the fact that his apartment is a mess: what will the owner think, she complains. Otherwise, however, you’ll quite possibly be better entertained by the lengthy footage from behind the scenes included in the ‘Making of Guinea-Pig’ film, which provides an interesting glimpse into the world of low-budget horror FX (and that aspect remains not bad, especially the part where the hero pulls out all his entrails and you can see clear to his spine). In the film itself, there’s a great deal of mugging by Araki, beginning with an unsubtle monologue in which he declared at length just how unhappy he is; a better director than Kusumi would have been able to do this in a less clunky way. Did quite like the ending, where all the damage done to Yoshio is shown in reverse, a hopeful ending in a series hardly known for optimism. Otherwise, not much point, and not much fun.

#4. Mermaid in a Manhole
Rating: B-

Dir: Hideshi Hino
Star: Shigeru Saiki, Mari Somei

Hino returned for another stab at the series, and much like #2, this involves particularly twisted artistic sensibilities. An artist (Saiki) whose wife recently left him, is fond of exploring the nearby sewer system. There, he finds a mermaid (Somei), whom he rescues and takes back to his apartment, where he commences to pain her as she lies in the bath. Unfortunately, she is suffering from a rapidly spreading series of tumours, which disfigure and cause her enormous pain. She not only insists he continue his work, but that he uses the multi-coloured pus oozing from the sores as the raw material with which he covers the canvas. His neighbours, meanwhile, are wondering where he has gone, and why his rubbish is filled with half-eaten raw fish.

If you are in the slightest bit averse to worms or squirting bodily fluids, this is not the movie for you, though we also wondered why the artist’s medical technique is limited to rinsing out the odd towel and some herbal ointment. However, the longer the movie goes on, the clearer it becomes that he is barking mad; even though we see the vast majority of what happens through his eyes, it may be the case that little or none of this is actually happening as depicted. If Fight Club had been directed by David Cronenberg, you might have got something lie this. Much credit to Somei, for enduring what can hardly have been a fun shoot, though neither performer has much to do, except stare blankly and flail around respectively. It’s probably the only entry in the series which would benefit from being expanded upon, yet I must confess we found laughter as much the reaction it provoked as anything else. Still, not one you’re likely to forget in a hurry.

#5. Android of Notre Dame
Rating: D

Dir: Kazuhito Kuramoto
Star: Toshihiko Hino, Mio Takaki, Tomoro Taguchi

This is a Japanese take on Frankenstein, in which the midget Karazawa (Hino) is carrying out medical experiments in a laboratory located beneath his back-yard. These are with the aim of helping cure his sister, who is wasting away in bed from a heart disease. However, an unscrupulous businessman Kato (Taguchi) works out what’s going on, and tries to blackmail our mini-mad scientist. It doesn’t go as planned – he ends up a severed head, still alive, with Karazawa now setting his sights on Kato’s associate, who can be lured in to provide a heart transpant for his sister. But perhaps it might be a good idea to get the patient’s input on this prospective treatment?

The results, however, should be filed under ‘not as entertaining as it sounds,’ with even a 50-minute running time difficult to get through – and both Chris and I have extraordinary tolerance for any films involving little people. Neither the scripting nor the performances are anything to write home about, and even the FX are surprisingly bad. A tongue looks more like polystyrene than anything and, while the removal of a heart is depicted in lengthy detail, this simply allows the viewer to observe, beyond reasonable doubt, the nature of the obviously-artificial surface being used as the “skin”. I tend to concur with other reviews, the bulk of whom reckon this is the least interesting entry in the series. D

#6. Devil Woman Doctor
Rating: B-

Dir: Hajime Tabe
Star: Shinnosuke Ikehata (“Peter”), Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Kobuhei Hayashiya, Masami Hisamoto, Nezumi Imamura

The “devil woman doctor” of the title is neither devil, woman or doctor. Discuss. It’s certainly the least horrific: while not short on violence, it adopts an approach to the gore best described as Python-esque. If you’ve seen sequences like Live Organ Donors, or Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days, you’ll know what I mean, and one skit is basically The Four Yorkshiremen with diseases, as four patients attempt to one-up each other with their illnesses. Linking these is the titular non-devilish, medical degree deficient unwoman, played with cheerful glee by transvestite Ikehata – who appears to be a career cross-dresser, while Python merely followed the great British pantomime tradition. and dressed as women for laughs. She links the skits of people with bizarre illnesses, such as the family whose heads explode when they get upset, or the couple where the man is a slowly-decaying zombie.

It’s not to be taken seriously in the slightest, and it’s clear that this is the intention. As such, I actually enjoyed most of this, especially the sequences where a woman is stalked by feral internal organs [Terry Gilliam could have had a field day animating that] and the final “iron pie” sequence, which is a cheerfully crap splatter version of a custard-pie battle. While it doesn’t all work, any more than everything Python did hit the mark, there’s enough here to keep me entertained, and even the dull parts don’t go on for long. Don’t like this sketch? No problem, there’ll be another one along in a moment. One gets the sense this is partly a rude gesture at the series’s critics, and in that aspect is a fitting way for the series to end.